How Evangelical Leaders Gift-Wrapped Their Flocks for QAnon

How Evangelical Leaders Gift-Wrapped Their Flocks for QAnon October 30, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about how hard evangelicals have fallen for QAnon. Yesterday, I showed you the hilarious story of how evangelical leaders like Ed Stetzer got lapped and pushed right out of the pool by these conspiracy theorists. Today, we’ll go through the traits that evangelical leaders painstakingly instilled in their flocks — only to see those traits used against themselves in time.

a present? for me? aw, you shouldn't have!
(Jess Bailey.)

The “Death of Expertise.”

In a Religion News article we’ve been discussing lately, evangelical pastor Jon Thorngate laments the “death of expertise” among evangelicals. The writer of that article, Katelyn Beaty, explains:

Thorngate attributes the phenomenon in part to the “death of expertise” — a distrust of authority figures that leads some Americans to undervalue long-established measures of competency and wisdom. Among some church members, he said, the attitude is, “I’m going to use church for the things I like, ignore it for the things I don’t and find my own truth.”

However, Thorngate is not being completely accurate here. Evangelicals only distrust authority figures who debunk and refute their beliefs. The only authority figures they trust are the ones who completely agree with them.

Unfortunately for Thorngate, that mindset cuts out all influence from all objective, real-world authority figures like doctors, real researchers, historians, biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and the like.

Even more unfortunately for Thorngate, as I look through the doctrinal statements of the church he pastors, it becomes glaringly clear that he himself bears some responsibility here for the situation he so laments. 

The Wingnut Weakness.

The first and major weakness in the evangelical psyche is evangelicals’ utter inability to sift true claims from false ones.

Indeed, they possess no apparatus, no mechanism for judging anything they encounter. None whatsoever. Absolutely nothing they believe, no opinion they hold — be it concerning the supernatural, earthly, personal, whatever — tethers to reality in any way.

Instead, whenever they encounter new claims, they weigh those claims against their current beliefs. If the claim agrees with their overall beliefs, they accept it. If not, they reject it.

This is why you can’t reason an evangelical out of a demonstrably false belief.

And their Dear Leaders instilled this weakness into the tribe very, very early on. They needed to do so. Otherwise, evangelicals would have refused to participate in their culture wars and moral panics, none of which are based on objective reality. The flocks also would have rejected their leaders’ false claims about a host of topics.

So, wingnuttery it became for evangelicals. Jon Thorngate pushes literalism and inerrancy at his church, and he doesn’t even realize that QAnon draws upon that same framework for its claims.

Full Throttle.

Turning evangelicals into wingnuts allowed evangelical leaders to feed their flocks lies without fear of rejection. Unfortunately for those leaders, though, wingnuts have no way to pull back on the fake-news throttle. There’s no way to rein them in or correct them. The only direction they have is further upward and outward on false ideas. They can only add to their canon, not subtract from it.

And for a while, evangelical leaders liked it that way. That’s how they sold their racist moral panics and then later their anti-abortion culture war to the gullible flocks. Since these panics always built off of and extended earlier ones, the flocks eagerly absorbed them.

Over the years, their Dear Leaders have complained about evangelicals’ inability to test claims or think critically, notably in the landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But none of them have dared to do anything to challenge that problem, much less to fix it.

So listening to their complaints now about this exact trait that they deliberately planted into their flocks makes me laugh now. They wanted flocks who had no way of telling when their leaders were manipulating them and feeding them misinformation. That’s exactly what they got.

It’s not anybody else’s fault but their own that QAnon slipped in under their radar and used that exact trait to poach their flocks away.

Distrust of Media.

Fox News started as a network in 1996, which is a couple of years after I deconverted. But even when I was a true-blue evangelical, my tribe had begun to suspect that the media didn’t like us and might be slanting stories to paint us negatively. It wasn’t just Hollywood making stories about evil ickie TRUE CHRISTIANS™ — it was all journalistic media we were beginning to distrust. That distrust is what led directly to Fox News’ start — and to its immense popularity with right-wing Christians.

The moment Fox News went on-air, it began spewing nonstop conspiracy theories about Democrats, liberals, feminists, and anybody else they saw as an enemy to the tribe. By now, their audience doesn’t even live in the same reality the rest of us inhabit.

Research tells us that evangelicals tend to watch only trusted media sources while ignoring and denigrating others, and that they don’t tend to fact-check much of what they hear from those sources.

Thanks to their media, evangelicals have no idea what color the sky is in the real world, and they have no desire to find out. Right-wing squawk boxes tell them everything they think they need to know.

And evangelical leaders did nothing to change this picture for decades. They only encouraged evangelicals to despise and distrust journalists and objective reporting. While whining about “postmodernism” and “fake news,” as Al Mohler does repeatedly (like here), he and other evangelical leaders continued to foment utter distrust of anyone who disagreed with them (like here).

It was only a matter of time before someone swooped in to poach evangelicals away to media sources that completely lapped even the ones their leaders approved.

The Hyper-Tribalism of QAnon.

By far the worst mistake evangelical leaders made in the past 30 years was developing their flocks into a completely tribalistic group. Such groups:

  • View themselves as good, righteous, correct, strong, and idealized
  • Demonize their outgroups as the opposite: evil, wicked, wrong, weak, and subhuman
  • Homogenize themselves, demanding ideological purity of members
  • Drive out anybody who steps out of line — if they can’t trample those folks back into acceptable behavior
  • Viciously punish dissent, heresy, and apostasy
  • Tend to handle conflicts and challenges in the worst ways possible
  • Stand on tradition and authoritarianism rather than learning and cooperation
  • Demand lockstep loyalty and submission to the group’s leaders
  • Put the advancement and protection of their group ahead of all other considerations and priorities, including the safety of group members

Y’all, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of tribalism than modern evangelicals.

Evangelical leaders shaped their flocks into a tribalistic group because doing so served their interests. Dehumanizing their enemies isolated evangelicals. It also frightened them (or enraged them) into compliance with their leaders’ demands. The depraved retaliation evangelicals meted out for heresy sent a clear message to any other potential heretics.

Evangelical leaders taught the flocks that nonsensical talking points represented adequate support for their own claims. This effort insulated the flocks against any inconvenient realizations.

QAnon built upon that solid foundation. Its believers definitely behave in tribalistic ways, even more than evangelicals generally do.

QAnon: “Taking Back Our Country.”

And now, let us examine evangelicals’ most fatal flaw: imagined ownership of America.

Out of everything else, this flaw explains why they fell so quickly and so completely for QAnon’s utterly absurd fantasies.

In an August 2020 story on Church Leaders, pastor Jared Stacy frets that his god might be:

“co-opted by conspiracy theories in a way that leads the next generation to throw Jesus out with the bathwater.” The kingdom narrative of Jesus, says Stacy, must remain separate from “the narrative of taking back our country.”

It’s frustrating when evangelicals creep right up to the very ledge of awareness before skittering backwards away from it, am I right? Jared Stacy doesn’t even realize that he and his fellow leaders themselves are the ones who inexorably entwined “the kingdom narrative of Jesus” with “the narrative of taking back our country.” So it’s a bit late for him to whine and moan about the situation now.

(Also: Did you notice that his primary fretting point is QAnon’s impact on future sales?)

In fact, if you hear someone talking about “taking back our country,” chances are really good the speaker is an older white evangelical who’s totally in their feelings about their dwindling cultural dominance.

Of course, this description applies to Reconstructionism. Reconstructionism is a hyper-politicized evangelical movement seeking to establish a theocracy in the United States. Sometimes adherents call it by other things, like Dominionism.

It all amounts to the same thing. Evangelicals think they should run everyone’s lives — and be able to force their crazymaking rules on everyone else.

QAnon Believers as the Designated Adults.

Decades ago, when evangelicals embraced politicization and began inching ever-closer to the wacky-right-wing-fringe of the political spectrum, they did so for a reason.

Their Dear Leaders convinced the flocks that they were the country’s Designated Adults. Yes, they would protect Americans from ourselves and keep all the precious children safe from evil librulsThey would hand America over to Jesus at the Endtimes as a purified Republic of Gilead.

For decades now, evangelicals have fought long and hard and bitterly to “take back our country.” Indeed, they see it as completely theirs, given them by the Mad Blood God of the Desert as a gift for being such stunning and wonderful followers. We’re just the meaniepies refusing to let them rule over us.

Seriously: How could QAnon’s creators possibly not capitalize upon this signal shortcoming? Just listen to QAnon believers. They all see themselves as America’s saviors, and QAnon’s idol Donald Trump as the agent who’ll hand them back their total dominance of American culture. 

Recipe for Disaster.

So let’s kinda summarize this perfect storm of elements that came together to create evangelicals’ hysteria over QAnon:

Evangelicals grow more and more afraid and upset by their dwindling dominance levels. As authoritarians, they fear losing power more than anything else. Their leaders’ efforts in regaining that dominance have uniformly failed spectacularly. Now, add worries about Covid-19 to the mix. This is a powderkeg.

Evangelicals have no objective way to judge QAnon’s claims. QAnon’s track record is dismal indeed. But evangelicals long ago lost trust in sources they see as unfriendly to their tribe, and they certainly don’t possess any real-world, objective way of fact-checking anything for themselves.

But boy howdy, do evangelicals like what QAnon says. QAnon tells them they’re fighting the good fight, that they’ll win that fight for sure, that they are so much better than their enemies, they’re the real patriots even, and that their enemies are treacherous subhuman ghouls out to murder and enslave their children. QAnon speaks to evangelicals’ narcissistic hearts.

If anybody pushes back against QAnon’s conspiracy theories, evangelicals long ago learned how to respond. They reject that person as a traitor to the tribe.

It couldn’t be more obvious to me that QAnon is actually a mockery of evangelicals. But it couldn’t have gained prominence without evangelical leaders themselves. They gift-wrapped the flocks with a big red bow on top, then handed the box to QAnon.

If they’re not happy with the results, they’ve only themselves to blame.

NEXT UP: Join me for a tale of gothic horror as the Great Evangelical Husband Hunt sprouts a strange new strategy.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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